Sunday 31 January 2010

Oh! What "Choices" You Will Have Upon a "Visit" to StoryTime

This week, Critical Literature Review is happy to publish another set of reviews in collaboration with StoryTime, a web magazine which showcases the works of budding and established African writers. The first story covered is Esi W. Cleland's "Choices" and the second is a story by Jude Dibia titled "The Visit". Both reviews were written by emerging writer Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, who is definitely a writer to watch out for in the future. Hope you enjoy reading the reviews.

This beautiful piece of work tip toes across the page with a calm, subtle poetry adorned with a palpable texture. It tells the simple tale of the romantic relations between a ‘dark, tall, beautiful, witty Senegalese young woman’ whose skin ‘is the darkest of the black shades’ and a ‘Caucasian Alaskan boy of about the same age’ with very white skin that is ‘queerly mottled with moles and freckles and red blotches’. The author uses clear, simple English to weave an interesting tale with a beautifully lulling rhythm. The story is pregnant with vivid descriptions; the author lingers around skin and colour and uses these stark differences as a meaningful point of reference for both our protagonists. Amidst these animating contrasts there is also a delighted discovery of ‘shared experiences that transcend race, colour, culture, even social class.’ Their differences, which at first appear to be the adhesive that keep them together, also serve to accentuate their distance.

There is a disturbing line in the story, that sort of dangled before me long after I had tucked it back into this tapestry, which I believe has connotations towards the psyche of the black African which is perpetrated at different levels of our society- ‘Is he telling her that he likes her as she is, all her sins, borne of her blackness forgiven…’. This line leaves one wondering about the self-image of our female protagonist, but again, like many other morsels sewn in and left for the reader to half-chew, this little thread stops here. It is more like a subtle ‘food for thought’ tucked away in the meat loaf of this tale.

However, one disturbing thing which taints this story is the part where the tale, which is mostly in the present tense, makes a jarring shift to the past tense - ‘Time goes by and when she attempts to sever the bonds of their relationship, he cried.’ It further continues in the past tense and then makes another jarring shift back into the present tense - ‘One day, as she and boy Alaska sat beneath the skies……, she imagines what her life might be…..’

Romance and multi-racial relationships, like many themes, are not new, but it is the ability of different voices to view old angles with fresh eyes that gives tales their unique quality. I would say Esi W Cleveland’s voice is one of such fresh voices, able to give that taste of spring water to our parched minds as we devour down this story. She is definitely a writer to watch. A good read.

‘The Visit’ tells the story of Nduesoh, a black Nigerian woman from a poor background who is married to Edward, a white, rich English Tycoon. The story begins with a scene in which the couple are having dinner in the opulent surroundings of their hotel suite. We meet Nduesoh’s insecurities in the very first paragraph, where the floral arrangements of Tulips and golden Daffodils on the dinner table make her ‘jealous’ because she feels that their ‘splendour’ mocks her, ‘much the same way a prettier and younger wife would taunt the older wife without having to say a thing.’ Riddled with feelings of resentment and fermenting anger, this tale is bridled with black inferiority and its rejection of its culture and values in the face of what it perceives to be white supremacy. Nduesoh’s eyes view the world with an acid rancour which we learn has been with her from the days of sibling rivalry. She is the last born in her family, and resents her older siblings for ‘their good looks and the names they’d been given’. This part of the tale explores the significance of the meaning of names - What’s in a name? Particularly looking at many African cultures which believe that the meaning of a name may translate into the path taken in one’s life. In this light, it is easier to understand Nduesoh’s questioning anger about her name, which means ‘What have I done wrong?’ Everything in her world is tainted by jealousy, bitterness and resentment, from how she sees her husband, to how she sees her family, to the memory of her wedding day.

It is during this opening dinner that she learns that she has a visitor waiting for her in the lobby, in the form of Idara, her older sister. As it’s to be expected from this character, she is not happy with this visit. She hates the sight of her sister who sticks out like a worn rug in the opulent decor of the hotel lobby. We cannot help but feel sorry for Idara, whose warm and enthusiastic greeting is met by a cold and aloof response. It is rather amazing, this extent of loathing that Nduesoh has for her family - her lack of concern for them - which she perpetrates by dutifully but rather begrudgingly throwing money at them every month. Nduesoh’s situation is not unique to her alone; it is not unusual within those families among which poverty is rampant, to depend very much upon the affluent member who has achieved a form of wealth in life. A clash of culture comes into play here; usually those black Africans who attain wealth and opulence and therefore associate more with the opulent white Africans tend to want to adopt many of the white ways of living, which include a lot of privacy and exclusivity. In contrast, the black African family set up is woven in tight knots of inter-dependence where family members freely seek help from one another. Hence a wealthy member of a family, such as Nduesoh in this story case, may attempt to adopt white practices of exclusivity but face the frustrations and burdens of a family that, true to black culture, expects help whenever it is needed, which, in poverty, will be often. It is an interesting contradistinction in cultures.

I first encountered this story on ‘Zeotrope Virtual Studio’; it was a good read then and it is still a good read now. I like to draw parallels between a good story and wine; they never remain stagnant, but acquire a lasting value with time. Which is why a century later you find readers and scholars still pondering over them, drawing lessons and meaning and trying to analyse the mind from which they were born. The author uses very textural language to give us that taste of opulence surrounding Nduesoh, sort of like that feeling one would get by rubbing a piece of silk cloth between one’s thumb and forefinger. As this is an excerpt from the author’s upcoming novel, it is perhaps from the novel itself that we will get to better understand the justifications of Nduesoh’s rather disturbing and extreme resentment and bitterness towards her family, and life in general.

[Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is a Zimbabwean student currently pursuing her studies at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has had short stories published in young people’s anthologies in Zimbabwe, and has a short story in the upcoming BEDanthology by Modjaji Books (South Africa) as well as another short story in the upcoming in the Story Time ‘African Roar’ Anthology. Novuyo was twenty when she attained third prize in the Intwasa Short Story Competition 2008. Her short story ‘You in Paradise won the Intwasa Short Story Competition 2009 and will be published in the next issue of African Writing Online Literary Magazine. More of her musings may be found at]

Sunday 24 January 2010

Have [Nigerian] Romance Novels Come of Age?

This week, Critical Literature Review showcases Nigerian writer Sylva Nze Ifedigbo doing a review of Myne Whitman's self published novel A Heart to Mend”. Enjoy! 

Nigerians, and indeed to a large degree Africans, are not particularly known for romance writing. The reason can be attributed to the sense of morality (real or apparent) that seeks to relegate issues of love to the secrecy of bedrooms and treats sex as something to be talked about only in hushed tones like it were some mysterious sacred ritual. We generally carry on like ‘we don’t do sex’ yet we have HIV, or ‘we don’t fall in love’ yet we have marriages.

Myne Whitman’s book, “A Heart to Mend”, makes a bold statement to the contrary. It shows that not only do we fall in love and marry for love, we also use love to conquer a wide range of situations that could have ordinarily been a bit difficult to shoulder alone.

Before “A Heart to Mend”, the closest the Nigerian Literary scene has felt of emotional writings were from a wide range of soft sale publications which were deficient in both craft and quality; both deficiencies that have contributed through a negative feedback to the dearth and ‘distaste’ for romance writings in Nigeria.

A Heart to Mend” comes however as a fresh breath of air. It chronicles the journey of Gladys Eborah, a young female Nigerian graduate from Enugu in South Eastern Nigeria to the commercial city of Lagos, first to find a job and then - in the process - love and ultimately marriage. In the typical romance stories style, this journey is not rosy, but is filled with so much turbulence which combines to raise the suspense and provide the reader a deeper satisfaction for the also typical ‘happy ever after’ ending.

Gladys doesn’t hog the spotlight alone however. Employing a double barreled lead character description approach, the author also brings the reader into the life and experiences of Edward Bestman, the young unmarried head of a business empire. Edward and Gladys meet in the very first chapter of the book but it takes a lot longer for Edward to overcome his mistrust for people (a psychological burden acquired as a result of childhood experiences of betrayal) and profess his love - one which he started feeling on that very first day - to Gladys.

For readers, there is plenty to like In the book.  Those accostomed with Nigeria will find that it is rich with very familiar words, places and things which they can easily relate with. We have for example the popular Peace Mass Transit which every Enugu resident knows. We have Zennon Oil, Terra Kulture, Tuface, Sound Soultan, Securities and Exchange Commission etc. The language utilised in this book is simple, however a reader might find the description languid in some instances. It goes on and on sluggishly, seemingly not in a hurry to get to a climax.

For people who find it difficult to read books without conversations, “A Heart to Mend presents itself as a good New year gift but then some of the conversation is drab and does not add any extra value to the main story.

A novice in the complex workings of the Stock Exchange and the various sharp practices that we often read of in the papers might find this book a worthy and handy learning guide. Exhibiting a good knowledge of the workings of the Stock Market, the author engages the reader in those business languages and mentions terms and concepts only those well schooled in that field would understand. I admire however how Whitman introduces these concepts in conversations which help the reader appreciate what is being said rather than foisting it down the readers in some kind of tutorial essay format.

The absurdities and sharp practices that exist in our business climes in Nigeria are well captured in this book. One of the characters in the book, Mr. Odutose, has developed a dubious way of helping companies get richer illegally. He is persistent in selling his idea even when Edward Bestman is adamant. Like in most things, Odutose finally finds a listening ear in another character, Chief Okrika, who ironically sets out to use the idea against Edward Bestman. It is uplifting to note however that Edward Bestman’s persistent refusal to buy into Odutose’s dubious plan shows that we still have credible and respectable Nigerian Business men and women; a badly needed reminder especially in these times when Nigeria seems popular globally for only the wrong reasons.

There are a couple of other downs for the book. For example, the reasons why Aunt Isioma abandoned her relatives for so long a time does not sound convincing, neither does the author do very well in explaining why Chief Okrika and wife should show up suddenly after so many years and begin to witch-hunt Edward Bestman.  Glady’s initial reactions to Aunt Isioma which are intended to portray her existing annoyance for Aunt Isioma’s unexplained wrong treatment of her relatives seems quite puerile. It also doesn’t ring as true that Aunt Isioma, given her wealth and connection, would leave Gladys (a first time visitor to Lagos) all to her self in her job hunt although she had kindly provided her the service of a car and a driver. In reality especially in Nigeria, such an Aunt (especially one portrayed to be eager to help) would have done much more. But then, this is fiction and I guess the author has the right to the soul of her story.

A Heart to Mend” which is the author’s d├ębut offering comes with many more pluses than minuses and gives an indication that this author is one to be watched for even richer outings in the future. Nigerian readers for example can now satisfy their yearning for well written, homegrown romance stories while the foreign readers can treat themselves to a different kind of romance; that made in the highly boisterous commercial city of Lagos, Nigeria.

[Sylva Nze Ifedigbo lives in Abuja, Nigeria. He writes fiction as well as socio-political essays.]

Sunday 10 January 2010

Zimbabwean Land Saga, Discrimination, Oppression and Plenty More!!!

Critical Literature Review is happy to present its first review of 2010. Phillip Chidavaenzi begins this year by covering Zimbabwean author Lawrence Hoba's short story anthology "The Trek & Other Stories" which is published by Weaver Press. Here is hoping that this whets your appetite for the plethora of reviews that Critical Literature Review intends to bring your way in 2010. Enjoy!

It is heartening that young writers are being accorded the space to tell their stories while showcasing their writing skills in the cut-throat world of literature.  

One such writer, Lawrence Hoba, had just had his collection of short stories – ‘The Trek & Other Stories’. Hoba is no stranger to the contemporary Zimbabwe literary cannon, with some of his stories having appeared in newspapers such as the now defunct “Mirror” and various short story anthologies both in print and online.

However, it is the recent publication of his slim volume of short stories that is poised to consolidate his voice as a writer in his own right. Perhaps the collection’s major strength is that it sits right on the pulse of a nation battling to correct historical wrongs in land ownership patterns in a way that has drawn contradictory perceptions, while trying to be understood as a justice seeker rather than a sadistic punisher.

A number of the stories here give multiple perspectives on this contentious issue, although they tend to easily lend themselves to the anti–land reform debate. In a highly polarized nation where there is no middle ground, Hoba has chosen a viewpoint that poses many questions and gives us an opportunity to reflect on the pressing need for land reforms and the manner of implementation. When all the propaganda and romanticism about reclaiming rich, productive ancestral lands have died down, there is always need for a candid, honest review of the programme. And ‘The Trek & Other Stories’ does just that – it could well be one of the missing links in the body of literature in Zimbabwe that looks at the aftermath of the land reform programme.

Over the past years, there have been countless land reform audits that however have remained locked up in some government offices, and their contents have remained shrouded in a veil of secrecy. Most of the stories in this collection – such as ‘The Trek’, ‘Maria’s Independence and ‘Having My Way’ – all explore the land resettlement saga in Zimbabwe, which has over the past 10 years dominated local and international media.

A close reading of the land resettlement discourse in Zimbabwe reveals the glaring absence of women, whose voices have been significantly annihilated. This is one anomaly that the first story, ‘The First Trek – The Pioneers’, somewhat addresses. In this story, the young narrator says, “mhamha’s hoe is worn from use, baba’s is still new and clean” (pp.2) Ironically, at the gate of the farm there is a sign post that reads, ‘Mr. B. J Magugu, Black Commercial Farmer.’ 

In addition,  the story ‘Maria’s Independence gives us an insight into the diversity of characters washed onto the farms by the political waves. I think this is a very important story in as far as it rightly locates women within the issue of land reform. The land reclamations were not only about men, but some women have stood the test and managed to turn themselves into successful farmers regardless of societal perception of the woman as the weaker vessel, particularly within political discourse.

In ‘The Second Trek – Going Home’ Hoba’s focus is on the black farm worker who is caught in between the feuding white commercial farmer and the belligerent black peasant farmer fighting to occupy the commercial farm. The story further highlights that the commercial farm –previously occupied by the peasant farmers – is not necessarily a humanized space that is easily habitable. There are no social utilities such as schools and hospitals. Furthermore, those farm workers that originated from countries such as Malawi remain trapped within the farm under new ownership because they can’t go back home. This is the dilemma that many farmers who originated from other countries face.
Two stories, ‘A Dream & A Guitar’ and ‘Tonde’s Return’ explore the ravages of the HIV and AIDS pandemic which has wreaked havoc in many families and communities, especially in Africa.

Hoba has to be commended for coming up with a competent collection of stories that are a true reflection of contemporary Zimbabwe.  

[Phillip Chidavaenzi is an award–winning Zimbabwean novelist and literary critic. His debut novel, ‘The Haunted Trail’ (2006), scooped a National Arts Merit Award for the Outstanding First Published Creative Work in 2007. Two of his short stories, ‘A Father’s Homecoming’ and ‘The Ties that Bind’ made into the Crossing Borders online literary journal. Several other stories and literary reviews were published in publications such as The Herald newspaper, ‘The Mirror’, ‘Parade’ and ‘Moto’ (all now defunct), and ‘The Southern Times’ newspaper. More information on his writings can be accessed at]